Love for sale

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2007, 12:00am

She's emancipated, independent and career driven, yet the modern woman still wants to snuggle up with a romance novel, just as her mother and grandmother did before her. And publishers are more than happy to oblige.

Romantic fiction giant Harlequin Enterprises, parent company to imprints such as Mills & Boon and Silhouette, sold 131 million books in 2005, prompting British publisher Headline to launch its own romance imprint.

Little Black Dress targets 'a new generation of romance readers' with short contemporary stories in a paperback format that are 'perfect for the handbag or the bath'.

Toronto-based Harlequin, which acquired British publisher Mills & Boon in 1971, is doing big business: more than 115 titles a month, published in 24 languages and 95 international markets; more than 1,300 authors in its stable; 5.22 billion books shipped since its inception in 1949.

Harlequin's imprints range from the traditional, such as medical and tender romance, to intrigue, sensual ('hot, sizzling romance') and desire ('daring and provocative'). In 2000, it moved into the online market (its site offering online book serials) and is now starting to supply books to mobile phones.

There are others in the field, including boundary-pushing publishers such as Black Lace, which bills its explicit stories as 'erotic fiction written for women by women'.

Is there room for another imprint? Absolutely, says Little Black Dress editor Catherine Cobain. 'When you think of romance, you think of Harlequin and Mills & Boon and that well established, slightly old-fashioned romance,' she says. 'We wanted to do something young and sparkly that looks like it will be good entertainment, aiming for the twentysomething and thirtysomething market, up to about 35.

'We wanted to think about how to bring things to people in an easily accessible way ... it's Tuesday night and I'm tired and on my way home and I want to pick up this fun, escapist read and read it in one night. It's the equivalent of getting a box of chocolates and eating them all in one go. It's not going to change your life.'

Cobain says the new imprint is being bombarded with unsolicited manuscripts, with young writers attracted by the freedom offered by its lack of rules. 'We wanted it to have a romantic theme and within that they can do whatever they like. The best way to kill something fresh is to say, 'You can't do this and this and this'.'

That's a point of difference from the Harlequin imprints, which issue guidelines for writers covering everything from how much sex is appropriate to settings, character ages and even the way characters are described.

That hasn't been a problem for Australian Valerie Parv, one of the Harlequin 'five-star club legends', who has sold more than 25 million copies of her 60 novels. Parv, a former non-fiction writer who tired of churning out titles such as Think Slim, Be Trim and All About Swimming Pools, pitches to the imprints that interest her - mostly romantic suspense. 'You still know they're going to get together, so the suspense adds an extra element,' she says.

Parv is a self-confessed romantic who married a crocodile hunter and, 35 years on, is still happily married. She says there's definitely a place for romantic fiction in the 21st century. 'I think what it's got to offer is what it always had, which is time out,' she says. 'We're even more time poor than we were. We're more stressed and harried than we were.

'More women live alone, by choice or perhaps they have high standards that aren't met. The romantic novel offers something they don't have in real life and may not want if they could. They have a good idea of what's fantasy and what's real life.'

Cobain says a lot of people have set ideas about romantic fiction. 'But at the end of the day 99 per cent of novels have some romantic element to them. It's just something that people like reading. It's relevant because it's always going to be an important part of human life. But it's not the old-fashioned clasping couples on the front.'

In Britain, Little Black Dress books are sold from dump bins near magazine stands. The imprint sees its rivals as not just other books but glamour magazines.

Cobain says Headline was receiving good stories too short for its main list and wanted a way to publish them and to foster the careers of young writers. 'In publishing, there's a lot of pressure on authors for their first and second books to be their breakthrough books and to follow up that with a book a year later,' she says. 'We wanted somewhere people could learn their craft.'

Parv says the genre has changed so much that her writing career, producing up to three titles a year, has been 'an incredible journey of discovery'.

'Erotica has just exploded on the scene,' she says, although Parv prefers to create steamy scenes rather than explicit ones. 'To me, what isn't said can be more sexy than what is.'

Parv, who has just sold a romance story to Amazon shorts, says that e-publishing, which enables readers to buy erotica anonymously, offers the genre chances for growth. 'It has freed women to get what they want from their fiction. Its getting into areas we would never have thought such as bondage and S&M.'

Parv sees herself as giving readers something that makes them feel good. And over time, that something hasn't changed. 'It comes down to 'love is always possible'. And as a species we're hardwired to want that.'